I’ll try to pretend that nothing happened over the New Year – no family gatherings, no drives to the airport, no skype sessions with missing relatives, and just pick up where I left off. It’s probably the only way to get back in the saddle, as they say.
So far I’ve discussed Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī’s last public address to his disciples, not the actual event of his departure from our view. He sensed that death was coming to claim his body but he kept on preaching, arguing that Hari bhajana is our only engagement in this world and so we shouldn’t stop it even for the death itself.
For some people their final days last for a long time, weeks if not months. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta, otoh, kept a fairly busy schedule almost until the end, he was confined to bed for only ten days. If we look at the civian calendar, he was last seen walking about on 20th Dec when he surprised Ananta Vāsudeva Prabhu by visiting him in his room because he hasn’t seen him in quite a while. On the 23rd he gave that last speech, the next day he noticed that there was no kīrtana and no lecture going on in the temple and demanded the normal program to be resumed. There is a joke on this topic about a dying Jewish shopkeeper and his family, devotees are apparently no different in keeping their priorities straight no matter what. The biography doesn’t have any records after that day until Dec 31.
On New Year’s eve he had a busy morning, not that anyone cared about New Year in India. Śridhara Svāmī was there and Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī asked him to sing Śrī Rūpa Mañjarī pada. This episode was also recalled by Śrīdhara Mahārāja himself and it was pretty close to how it’s described by Bhakti Vikāsa Svāmī’s biography. The thing was that Śrīdhara Svāmī wasn’t a regular singer and so a senior disciple instructed the usual, reputed kīrtanīyā to take over. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta, however, insisted on Śrīdhara Svāmī continuing and said that he wasn’t concerned with melodious intonations.
He then asked another devotee to sing one of Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura’s songs which ended with the following verse:
“O Lord, I am extremely unfortunate. My attachment for the holy name has never come about. The heart of Bhaktivinoda is overwhelmed with sadness.” Upon hearing these last lines, Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī clapped his hand to his forehead as profuse tears of humility decorated his cheeks, warning of the lamentable plight of being unattracted to the holy name – that’s verbatim from the book.
This is a perfect illustration of what is supposed to happen to us in the best case scenario at the highest possible stages of advancement. We won’t be having visions of Kṛṣṇa and His jolly calves prancing around Vṛndāvana. All we can hope for is profound humility, overwhelming realization that we have absolutely no taste for chanting of the holy name. Nothing else is possible to realize while in bodily consciousness – lack of bhakti is our constitutional state here, we can’t have it any other way until our consciousness gets separated from material senses and sense objects. Ordinary people see flowers and sunsets, perfect devotees see absence of the Lord and absence of devotion.
Next came a big and important talk about the future of the mission. I don’t want to start an argument how exactly it should have been interpreted, what was the background, or how different parties understood it. I’ll just give my own impression and would urge everyone else to thread carefully, too. There were lots of invested interests at the time, different devotees chose different courses of actions and we can be sure they felt totally justified themselves. Our side is Srila Prabhupada’s side but he wasn’t there and if someone says that this is not how it all played out we can get into an unpleasant argument for no good reason.
It was the day when Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī gave instructions on how to carry on Gauḍiyā Maṭha mission in his absence, that the devotees should form a GBC and so on. That’s what we know about it but there were other instructions, too, and it might have been confusing. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī entrusted management to one particular devotee, for example, and he wasn’t everybody’s favorite. He then asked who was the most knowledgeable in the śāstra and entrusted that devotee to continue spreading the rūpa-raghunātha-vāṇī. Similarly, he gave various orders to other devotees who might have thought it was more important for them than worrying about GBC.
I can see how some devotees might have interpreted these orders as indicators of who should be appointed as an ācārya and I can understand how they didn’t take the order to form the GBC more seriously because it wasn’t addressed to them personally. We can easily say “they didn’t form the GBC and that’s why they failed” but we should also remember that instead of “they didn’t” we can consider various “they dids”. I’m pretty sure no one thought “I’m not going to follow this order” but everyone was busy busy with what they thought they had to do. It happens to us all the time – we become too preoccupied with doing something and don’t even notice we missed something else. It’s very easy to judge others from a safe distance and with full knowledge of history. Things never look quite the same in the heat of the moment, we should not forget that.
Among other, non-controversial things, there was an order to complete publishing Vaiṣṇava-mañjuṣā – a Sanskrit dictionary explaining meaning of every word, every root, every syllable, every sound as manifestation of Kṛṣṇa. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī got a big donation for this project once and it was important for another reason, too, which I intend to explain in a couple of days.
Another instruction was to a disciple who had a temporary fallout with his guru: “Either in love or rupture, it is good to maintain the same purpose.” This should tell us that our relationship with our guru is eternal and while it sometimes appears to be affected by karmic considerations we should not take it very seriously, these things come and go, they hinder our relationships only for a short time.
His last message was: “All of you, present and absent, accept my blessings. Remember that our sole duty and dharma is to propagate service to the Lord and His devotees.”
Next morning, around 5.20, he came to consciousness and asked who was present. Devotees were supposed to change shifts at that time and as one devotee was leaving, Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta left the body. His last words were “Oh…Oh…Kṛṣṇa, Kṛṣṇa”.
This happened in Calcutta and devotees took his body to Māyāpur for final rights, arriving there when it was already evening. It’s not particularly important what rituals they observed and how. His body was transcendental but we should be more concerned with the journey of the soul. I want to speculate on how the death could have possibly felt for Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta but it won’t be today.